There are many ways in which Billie Jean King could be seen as inspiring. She was one of the first athletes to be openly gay, as well as a leading female tennis player. This spotlight focuses on how she fought for equality in women’s sports.
Billie Jean King on Women’s Abilities in Tennis
It was the “Battle of the Sexes” match of 1973 that is one of the most notable moments of Billie Jean King’s sports career. After 55-year-old tennis star Bobby Riggs said that he was better than any female tennis player, Riggs called for a game against King. The two then played a match in Houston on September 20th that drew a lot of attention. The nationally televised game got close to 50 million viewers and ended in three sets. In the first set, Riggs was leading. Then King took the lead with three sets, one after the other; the scores were 6-4, 6-3, and 6-3. Yes, in slightly over two hours Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs. She got the $100,000 USD prize.
Since then, the Battle of the Sexes has been made into a movie starring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carrell as Riggs. As a feminist, I see the Battle of the Sexes match as a win for female tennis. Bobby Riggs had essentially said female players were inferior to males on the tennis court. King showed otherwise. On a symbolic level, feminism triumphed against male chauvinism.
So, it was about more than just the $100,000 win for Billie Jean King or potential damage to her career if she had lost. I must point out though that the match that wasn’t balanced as King was 29 at the time, roughly half of Riggs’ age, and also King was at the height of her career (she had taken 10 Grand Slam singles titles by that point in time).
Unequal Pay in Tennis: How Did Billie Jean King Respond?
Pay disparity in tennis was a reality for Billie Jean King. When she won Wimbledon in 1968 (for the third time!), she received £750, while her male equivalent got £2,000. In 1970, she took the Italian Open title and earned significantly less than the male champion Ilie Nastase. A sizable difference in pay! Not only that, but women weren’t always even invited to play in every competition.
Feeling dissatisfaction at the disparity in earnings between genders, King threatened not to play at the 1973 U.S. Open if there was not equal pay for men and women. She created a rebel tour with World Tennis magazine’s founder Glady Heldman that was exclusively for women. And as a symbolic gesture, the nine women who joined the tour were given $1 each as payment. It was all about not being discriminated against as women from playing tennis and also the gender disparity.
Then, in June of 1973, she founded and became the first President of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). The same year, the U.S. Open offered equal prize money for men and women. I believe that King’s establishment of the WTA was a big reason for that equal payment between genders. Given King was the U.S. Open defending champion, she held a lot of power. As a result, the U.S. Open of 1973 awarded $25,000 USD to both the male and female champions. It was the first Grand Slam event to give men women the same prize amount.
Of course, this event wasn’t the end of sexism. It was that same year that Riggs challenged the U.S. Open Winner Margaret Court to play a match, saying he could beat her even as a middle-aged man. He did win and then challenged King to what later was dubbed the Battle of the Sexes (as described above).
Is Tennis Today Gender-Equal?
Today tennis is heralded as a gender-equal sport when it comes to pay. But as the New York Times explained in 2016, the equal prize earnings are only true to Grand Slam tournaments and some other tennis events, not for every tennis match. And sexism is still a reality, as shown by BNP Paribas Open’s Raymond Moore (the then tournament director) saying that WTA players were riding men’s coattails. While the New York Times writes that pay between male and female tennis players is closer than in other major sports, the reality is that there is still not equal pay between genders. The Times estimates that women earn about 80 cents for every dollar that men earn.
But, of course, it’s about more the money. It’s about the concept that women deserve to earn as much as men for their efforts, whether it be in tennis or otherwise. While there is still a ways to go when it comes to sports, and gender equality – as well as gender parity in other workplaces – Billie Jean King has helped progress the feminist movement.